How for blind people, the iPhone significantly changed the world of cell phones even more than for the sighted

In 1990 I had a conversation with my friend Aaron Levinthal about phones and we thought it would be cool if we could just take our phone put it on our belts and go out into public. Neither of us had seen a cell phone at that point yet. On a college trip the assistant choir professor Jonathan Øverby had a cell phone, and used it once or twice. They began to be more prevalent as time passed, though I’d never held one until I got one. Well, a working cell anyway; my parents showed me an old cell from the early 1990s that was no longer in service. The retired phone was from one of their friends, was about the size of a brick, and seriously weighed in like one too , at least two or three pounds.


In 1997, my Dad was in the hospital, and I had been invited to American Players Theater for some Shakespeare. I decided to get a phone so i wasn’t forced to stay at home for a call, and could still be reachable when away; cell plans were cheap then. The phone was cool, but not accessible at all. All I could do with it was answer calls and call people from memory. I heard about how people were beginning to text, but there was no way to make the phone talk.


In December 2002 Mike Calvo introduced the blind community through Main Menu to talks, a screen reader on the Nokia 9290 communicator. That, for sure, was one of the most exciting podcasts (before there were podcasts) I had ever heard. I even took it to work the next day, so I could listen to it during my lunch; I just had to have one. Luckily, about two weeks later, between Christmas and new years, my friend Ted found one on eBay. The owner had received it for Christmas, but thought it was too complicated; so it was bran new, and at a good price. The communicator only supported GSM, and I was on Verizon, which at that time only had CDMA, so I only used the PDA features on it until summer. In July 2003 I changed to T-Mobile, and never looked back.


I had the 9290 for two years and then Nokia came out with its successor, the 9500. It had Bluetooth and Wifi, the 9290 only had infrared (IR) for transferring data. Over the next four years I had several more Nokia, and a few windows phones too. Things slowly got more accessible, more apps were available, but the big problem was still third party screen reader prices. From 2002-2009, blind people who wanted a talking cell phone had to first buy the phone, and then buy the screen reader. There were two major programs at that time. Talks came out first followed by Mobile Speak. The programs had a one week trial, and then after that they would force a reboot every ten minutes or so, thus, the user would want to buy a license and get it installed as soon as possible. They needed a windows computer for that. The two screen readers cost between $300 and $400, if you changed phones, you could move your license over for $50. Mobile Speak was $80 if you had AT&T, but I didn’t know that at the time. Back then, AT&T on the cell phone side was known as Singular Wireless. The additional cost of a screen reader  made the phone about twice as expensive for a blind person, of whom many were on a lower or fixed income. I was working full time during that period, and I even found it annoying.


January 7, 2007 was a huge day for technology, Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, and everyone was ecstatic, except the blind community. The iPhone was basically a slab of glass, nobody in the blind world had an idea how that would ever be accessible, but I knew that was the future. In 2009, BlackBerry came out with a screen reader for their phones, it cost $500, I’m glad it never had to matter. Steve Jobs announced that VoiceOver, which was Apple’s screen reader for the mac, first announced with macOS Tiger, would be coming to iPhone OS 3 at WWDC 2009. This would change the world for blind cell phone users forever. Never again, would people have to buy an additional screen reader, unless they needed a Windows phone while they were still viable. I went to the Apple store less than a month after VoiceOver was announced, and bought a new shiny iPhone 3GS. Phones and operating systems came out in the summer back then. It took me weeks before I could type text messages on the touch screen, I still suck at it, but Apple added support for Bluetooth keyboards the next year. They then added Braille screen input several years later, and many blind people find that very efficient.


Android was announced late in 2008, and after VoiceOver came out on the iPhone, Google had to follow suit. TalkBack is Google’s offering, and together they pretty much assure that a blind person wanting a talking smartphone today can pay the same price as any sighted person, and get their phone of choice talking immediately out of the box. Now, a blind potential buyer can go to a store and look at their phone of choice and see how the screen reader behaves before actually buying it. That was not possible before 2009. Also, the models that talked with third party screen readers in the past seemed not popular here in North America, none of my sighted friends or family had them. Now, blind people can use the most popular phones, and if they don’t know how to do something, they can just Google it, or ask someone they know how to do it. Although Apple and Google changed the world of cell phones forever, unknown to many sighted people, the change was definitely, and significantly even more of a life changer for those who have low vision, or who are blind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s